Skin Cycling: What is it? How Do I Properly Skin Cycle with Retinol?

Feb 13, 2023
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It’s the new skincare routine that’s popping up all over social media. On TikTok, the ‘skin cycling’ hashtag has hit a cool 3.5 billion views. But hey, we’re not here just to feed you the buzz - what’s the actual science-backed verdict? Good news. Most dermatologists agree skin cycling is medically sound. 

Want to know more? Read on.

What is skin cycling?

First things first, skin cycling is more a philosophy than a specific regimen to follow. The idea behind it is that when it comes to skin care products, less is more. Increasingly, many of us have invested in and built a skin care regimen loaded with a variety of cleansers, toners, serums, masks, creams, and more. Unfortunately, piling on more and more products every day isn’t helping your skin. Often, it’s doing the exact opposite and causing too much irritation and inflammation. Enter skin cycling. 

Skin cycling allows for “rest days” during the week, so that your skin can repair itself after using certain products. This can help prevent irritation and inflammation. The term was coined by Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

How do I start skin cycling?

Dr. Bowe, the inventor of ‘skin cycling’, advocates a simple 4-step regimen if you are a beginner. You do one step a night for your nighttime routine, and cycle through the entire routine every 4 nights.

Step 1: exfoliate 

On the first night, apply an exfoliator after cleansing and before you apply a moisturizer. An exfoliator lifts away the top layers of dead skin to give you a cleaner and more radiant complexion. Too much exfoliation, however, damages the skin barrier and can make your skin look red and irritated. That’s why you only exfoliate once every 4 days in skin cycling. Examples of exfoliating ingredients are:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHA)
  • Poly hydroxy acids

Most dermatologists recommend using one of these chemical exfoliants over physical exfoliation such as scrubs. Physical exfoliants tend to be too harsh and can cause micro-tears in your skin.

Step 2: Retinol

On the second night, apply your retinol product after cleansing and before using moisturizer. Retinol stimulates cell turnover so that old dull skin is replaced by healthy fresh skin. Retinol use can cause side effects such as dryness, irritation, and sun sensitivity. When you first start using retinol, starting slow minimizes these side effects. 

Skin cycling is ideal for getting into retinol. You only use it once every 4 nights to give your skin time to acclimate. Gradually, you can ramp up retinol frequency over time to achieve greater benefits.

Steps 3 and 4: Recover

Over the next 2 nights, you give your skin time to recover from active ingredients. All you need is your cleanser followed by moisturizer. Your skin doesn’t get overburdened with too much product all at once.

What products do I use in skin cycling?

The great thing about skin cycling is you don’t have to give up your favorite products. It’s all about getting them to work better, by using them less. 

Examples of exfoliant ingredients are:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (e.g., glycolic acid, lactic acid) - good for dry or normal skin
  • Beta hydroxy acids (e.g., salicylic acid - good for oily, acne-prone skin
  • Poly hydroxy acids - good for sensitive skin that needs gentle exfoliation

Examples of retinol products: 

  • Tretinoin (e.g., Retin A) - higher strength retinoid available by prescription
  • Retinol - lower strength retinoid available over-the-counter.

How do I make a skin cycling routine for myself?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer as to how you should cycle your skin-care products. The 4-step routine described above is just a starting point, not a prescription. 

There are many different ways to create a skin cycling routine, so it can be tailored to meet your specific needs. Ultimately, it comes down to listening to your body and adapting as you go. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Your skin care situationHow to adapt your skin cycling routine
You already use retinol more frequently than 1 in 4 nightsIf you don’t have irritation from retinol, there’s no need to scale back. If you can tolerate more frequent use, substitute one or more of your recovery nights with retinol. 
You have a diagnosed skin condition like psoriasis or eczemaYour best bet is to follow your dermatologist’s specific advice for you.
You have sensitive skinSkin cycling is ideal for those with sensitive skin. You use active ingredients in moderation to avoid excessive irritation. If you find you still suffer from irritation, don’t be afraid to give yourself an extra recovery day in the cycle. It may also help to choose lower strength exfoliants or retinols. 

Who shouldn’t do skin cycling?

If you are happy with your current skincare routine and aren’t looking to simplify things, there’s no need to follow a new routine for the sake of it. If you have a skin condition that you see a medical professional for (for example, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea), it’s best to follow your doctor’s specific advice for you.

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